By Gary Nunn
Rachel Weisz’s character Lady Sarah Churchill (left) was an intimate companion and political advisor to Queen Anne (right). (Supplied: 20th Century Fox)
“No sex please, we’re British.” It’s an oft-repeated adage satirising Britain’s glacial pace in shedding its conservative, buttoned-up reputation.
We often assume British attitudes towards sex changed with the sexual revolution of the 1960s, when the contraceptive pill made the NHS (1961) and homosexuality was decriminalised (1967).
In our minds, any time before this was restrained and prudish, particularly when it came to same-sex intimacy in the notoriously rigid Britain of yore.
But two new films, set in the 1500s and 1700s, shake these assumptions. (Warning: minor spoilers ahead.)
Mary, Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan in the title role and Australian actor Margot Robbie as her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, contains a gay male sex scene. The Favourite, in which Olivia Coleman plays Queen Anne, features lesbian intimacy.
What’s raising eyebrows isn’t the sapphic or graphic sex itself, but the nonchalance of the characters towards these risqué sexual acts.
Queen Mary is more aggrieved by her husband’s betrayal than by his homosexuality in Mary, Queen of Scots. (Supplied)
Stretching the truth?
Are these stigma-free attitudes accurate, or a stretch of the truth for storytelling and marketing?
Some historians say audiences are imposing modern values onto a very different society.
“Same-sex erotic practices … such as sharing beds, were seen as unremarkable,” Julie Crawford, a Columbia professor studying the history of sexuality, told The Cut.
“Most negative discourse about sex in the pre-modern period was about heterosexual sex. Some would say it was never recognised as sex with consequences unless there’s the threat or possibility of reproduction.”
In the film, Mary, Queen of Scots appears more aggrieved by the betrayal than the homosexuality when she discovers her new husband in bed with her friend David Rizzio.
In another scene, Mary tells David that she doesn’t hold his “nature” against him — while he’s in a dress pretending to be her chambermaid.
In Mary, Queen of Scots, courtier David Rizzio is found in bed with Queen Mary’s husband. (Supplied)
Meanwhile, The Favourite features two of Queen Anne’s gentlewomen rivalling for power and the Queen’s attention — including a spot in her bed.
Melbourne University’s Lauren Rosewarne suggests these scenes may have been included to titillate and entice new audiences.
Her forthcoming book Sex and Sexuality in Modern Screen Remakes explores how existing stories get retold and modernised on screen.
“One way that’s done is through mirroring women’s changing roles in society and depicting contemporary, more liberal, views on sex”, she says.
“Using sex — particularly queer sex — gives freshness and contemporary relevance to a story that’s been told before.”
With a little bit of creative licence, it’s possible to invite a wider pool to engage with history.
“Having sexy celebrities in erotic situations adds sexual intrigue for viewers who likely otherwise wouldn’t be interested in yet another costume drama,” Dr Rosewarne says.
Australian historian Gillian Pollack says Queen Anne’s supposed lesbianism would’ve been dangerous, secretive and improbable.
“Anne had a supportive husband from Denmark. I’m going to lay odds that, whatever her private proclivities, she wasn’t lesbian, because Anne was heir to Charles II (her uncle),” she said.
“If anything “bad” about her was exposed, England could’ve returned to being a Protectorate — so she’d have been risking the monarchy’s future.”
‘Rumoured, but pretty likely’
Author and history buff Rachel Hawkins, who tweets about #SexyHistory, sees things differently.
She enjoys the female gaze, the herstory if you will, of these retellings.
“In both films, we see royal women — whose main purpose when it came to sex was to provide heirs — explicitly participating in non-procreative sex,” she said.
“There’s no ‘lying back and thinking of England’. We’re putting women’s sexuality more forward in media in general, but also we’re starting to view these historical figures as actual people.”
On the same-sex intimacy scenes, Ms Hawkins says, “both same-sex relationships depicted in the films were only ever rumoured, but seem pretty likely, and, honestly, make for the better story — which is always a goal”.
For Dr Rosewarne, that storytelling goal is forgivable if placed firmly in context.
“I’d caution against taking too much of an education from any of these films,” she said.
“Their most useful role is sparking imagination in viewers and encouraging them to read more about a specific period in history.
“The stars of The Favourite for example, said they were discouraged from reading up on their characters in advance.”
Historians agree that modern labels — like “lesbian”, “bisexual” or “gay” — wouldn’t have been recognised during this period.
Same-sex intimacy in friendship and between monarch and attending staff was common in what’s been termed a “homonormative” society — especially for the elite upper classes depicted in these films.
Victorian prudishness may be an aberration
It’s entirely possible Britain entered a temporary Puritanical stage before and after the prim Victorian era.
In his book, The Origins of Sex, Faramerz Dabhoiwala wrote that, contrary to 1960s mythology, today’s permissive sexual attitudes first developed in 17th-century Western Europe.
In 2015, Mr Dabhoiwala wrote a thorough Guardian piece on the “secret history of same-sex marriage.” He details 16th-century “female husbands” — women disguising themselves as men to live with other women.
These relationships transcended class.
“Quick, secret marriages were easy to contract in London until the 1753 Marriage Act (which invalidated “self-marriage”): there was a busy trade in no-questions-asked ceremonies in taverns, brothels, prisons and chapels”, he writes.
Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill — a rival of Lady Sarah Churchill for Queen Anne’s affection — in The Favourite. (Supplied: 20th Century Fox)
Ms Crawford supports this timeline.
“When you started having institutional recognition of same-sex relationships, then the story changed,” she said.
“Things that used to be normal, like men sharing beds, became slightly more suspect. And most people locate that change in the early 17th century, so between the two [films].”
The priggish attitudes of the Victorian era continued for some three centuries, arguably up to the past two decades.
Only now has nonchalance towards queer intimacy (in some quarters at least) returned.
Gary Nunn is a freelance journalist. Twitter: @garynunn1